A Brief History of American Socialism
Michael Kazin on the Socialism’s Far-Reaching Influence on American Thought
“America will never be a socialist country,” declared Donald Trump in his 2019 State of the Union Address, given to a joint session of Congress. The president clearly believed that fear of such a radical transformation would help him win reelection against a Democratic Party in which socialists like Bernie Sanders were growing in numbers and influence.
The former president and most of his political allies are probably unaware that nearly two centuries earlier, a wealthy socialist from abroad spoke before the same body. The friendly reception he received suggests that the philosophy of economic equality and cooperation instead of competition may not be “un-American” at all.
During the winter of 1825, Robert Owen, a rich manufacturer from Wales, gave two addresses, each about three hours long, to joint sessions of Congress. There was, he told the lawmakers, an urgent need to establish “a New System of Society,” one that would be based “upon principles of strict justice and impartial kindness.” Owen condemned the reigning economic order, which he called “the trading system,” as selfish and inhumane at its core. It trained people “to obtain advantages over others,” he argued, and gave “a very injurious surplus of wealth and power to the few” while exacting “poverty and subjection on the many.”
Owen predicted the coming of a new order that would liberate Americans from their plight. An economy organized for “mutual benefit” would enable men and women to leave the irrationality of relentless, often violent, competition behind them. “In the new system,” he promised, “union and cooperation will supersede individual interest.”
The legislators treated Owen and his ideas with great respect. Several Supreme Court justices came to hear him; so did the outgoing president, James Monroe, and the incoming president, John Quincy Adams. Because neither Thomas Jefferson nor James Madison, who were then quite elderly, could leave their Virginia estates, Owen brought his message to them. He paid a visit to John Adams up in Massachusetts as well.
Every living president at the time was thus willing to hear the visionary radical’s sharp critique of the capitalist society emerging both in the United States and across the Atlantic. Their curiosity was a sign that the market system, for all its promise of plenty, was not yet a settled reality defended by all men of wealth and standing.
Robert Owen soon gave a name to the new system he advocated. He called it “socialism,” and the term quickly caught on across the globe. Although future socialists would never enjoy such an elite audience in the United States, their ideas and the movements they built remained part of the mainstream of American history. Most have been committed to democracy, both as an electoral system and as the vision of a future in which ordinary people, in all their diversity, would make the key decisions in their workplaces and communities, as well as at the polling booth, that affected their lives and the fate of their society.
Like it or not, socialism has been as impossible to separate from the narrative of the nation’s history as the capitalist economy itself—and often posed the most prominent alternative to it. Socialists were also energetic advocates of federal and state policies such as Social Security, on which most Americans have come to rely.
Conservative politicians and commentators take quite a different view. For them, socialism has meant only a hankering for state tyranny and brazen assaults on property rights that, together, threaten the beliefs every patriotic citizen holds dear. For the Right, socialists are the sworn enemies of freedom and democracy; according to Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, they defy the national creed that “the ultimate sovereign power [in the US] lies with the people.”
The congressman might be surprised to learn that, a little more than a century ago, his own state had been home to one of the strongest contingents of socialists in America. In 1912 one-sixth of Oklahoma voters cast their ballots for Eugene Debs, a former railroad union leader, who ran for president on the Socialist Party (SP) ticket. Debs drew a little less than half as many votes in Oklahoma that year as did William Howard Taft—the White House incumbent. Soon there were then six Socialists in the state legislature; more than three thousand Sooners belonged to the party—one of every three hundred adults in the state.
Part of their attraction to socialism was practical: the Oklahoma party appealed to small farmers, then the majority of residents, with a program that featured a plan for the state government to purchase arable land for the use of those willing to cultivate it and vowed to remove all property taxes on farms worth less than $1,000. State banks and warehouses would help growers stay in business. And nearly all socialists, like most other Oklahomans, were devout Christians. They flocked to yearly encampments that blended a faith in Jesus with a belief in socialism. At one gathering, a preacher proclaimed, “Christ’s church was a working class church” and cited the verse from Ecclesiastes that decrees “the Profit of the Earth is for all.”
The passion for reform that moved many Oklahomans to vote for socialists or look favorably on their ideas was not unique to that prairie state. Socialists, then and later, played a major role in initiating and rallying support for changes that most Americans have no desire to reverse. These include women’s right to vote, Medicare, the minimum wage, workplace safety laws, universal health insurance, and civil rights for all races and genders. All were once considered radical ideas. But vast majorities now consider them the cornerstones of a decent society.
Americans also overwhelmingly favor curbs on the power of big business that conservatives since the nineteenth century have condemned as socialist. Most citizens believe that the superrich should pay much higher taxes than the middle class. They believe that businesses should be subject to rules that require them to act responsibly and that banks shouldn’t engage in predatory lending. They also agree that energy corporations shouldn’t endanger the planet and public health by emitting carbon-based pollution. Companies, they believe, should be required to guarantee that consumer products like cars, food, and toys are safe and that companies pay decent wages and provide safe workplaces.
Another way to gauge the influence of socialism in US history is to list some of the prominent American writers, artists, intellectuals, activists, and scientists who either publicly embraced the label or favored a socialist blueprint for the nation. It’s quite a distinguished roster. At various times it has included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, Charles and Mary Beard, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jack London, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Helen Keller, John Reed, Eugene O’Neill, Randolph Bourne, Florence Kelley, Isadora Duncan, Thorstein Veblen, Walter Rauschenbusch, Clarence Darrow, Max Eastman, George Bellows, John Sloan, Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Orson Welles, Norman Mailer, Woody Guthrie, and Jacob Lawrence. Two of the most influential labor leaders in US history—Walter Reuther and A. Philip Randolph—were also open about their sympathy for socialism. So, at some points in their lives, were Margaret Sanger, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem—a trio who did much to create the modern feminist movement. Several of these people remain controversial today.
But it would be impossible to write a history of American culture that did not devote attention to nearly every one of them. And conservatives who view socialism as unpatriotic might also ponder why Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag in 1892, was an avowed Christian socialist.
The world-famous physicist Albert Einstein and Charles Steinmetz, who developed the alternating current vital to machines that run on electricity, also expressed a fondness for the socialist vision. “I am convinced,” wrote Einstein in 1949, that “there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils” of capitalism, “namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion.”
What’s more, the only nonpresident to have a federal holiday named after him favored both “a massive program by the government” to create a job for every citizen who could not find one in the private sector and the abolition of poverty in the entire nation—as well as complete equality of the races. In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, he proclaimed, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” Such views help explain why conservatives opposed a holiday dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. as long as they did.
So if individual socialists and their proposals gained a good deal of popularity throughout American history, why didn’t socialist parties fare better in the electoral arena?
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, several thousand members of the Socialist Party of America did win a share of local power—from the mayor of Milwaukee to the mayor of the little town of Antlers, Oklahoma. Yet only two Socialists became members of the House of Representatives, and none came close to winning a seat in the US Senate or a high executive office in any state.
The charismatic Debs ran fives times for president on a socialist ticket, but he never won more than 6 percent of the vote, with about a million ballots in 1912. At that point the socialist movement had managed, wrote the critic and historian Irving Howe, to escape “the isolation of the left-wing sect” without becoming a mass movement of enduring size and power. In the end, the “working class party” was unable to woo more than a small minority of workers away from voting for politicians beholden to the “capitalist class.”
For over a century, scholars and activists have been arguing about why it failed to make that leap. Serious debate began in 1906 with a short book, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? by the German academic Werner Sombart. At the time, anyone who visited the hungry coal towns of Appalachia or the fire-prone sweatshops of the Lower East Side could have refuted Sombart’s contention that incomparable prosperity—what he called “reefs of roast beef and apple pie”—prevented American workers from emulating their European counterparts. So the question remained alive among historians and political scientists through the twentieth century, even as the program of most Socialist and Labor parties on the continent came to resemble that of liberal Democrats in the United States and vice versa.
Some prominent critics blamed American socialists for their own marginality or viewed their cause as doomed by conditions particular to the nation’s history. Thus, Daniel Bell contended that socialists “could not relate to the specific problems” of the “give-and-take, political world.” Aileen Kraditor claimed they spoke to working people as if they were the ignorant dupes of capitalism, with no ideas or cultures of their own. Louis Hartz maintained that the hegemony of liberal thought, with its vaunting of the classless individual, made Marxists politically superfluous. Many commentators have focused on the absence of a feudal past, with its deep class feelings; on ethnic and racial and religious divisions in the United States; or on the ideological flexibility of the two-party system.
In recent years, scholars on the left have altered the terms of discussion. They defend the achievements of socialists as the deeds of prophets without honor in an unjust society. Nick Salvatore portrayed Debs as a union leader who gradually came to believe that monopoly capitalism was betraying the American Dream. Mari Jo Buhle paid tribute to “the tens of thousands of rank-and-file women who formed the Socialist women’s movement… the defeated and now forgotten warriors against triumphant capitalism.”
Such views echo a remark by Mr. Dooley, the fictional Irish American bartender created by Finley Peter Dunne, who delighted newspaper readers at the turn of the twentieth century. Dooley disdained the kind of historians who, like physicians, “are always lookin’ f’r symptoms” and making “a post-mortem examination.” “It tells ye what a countrhy died iv,” he complained. “But I’d like to know what it lived iv.”
Even the minority of American radicals who admired dictatorial regimes abroad spent most of their time fighting for the same causes as did the nation’s scrupulously democratic socialists. The Communist Party, formed in 1919, yoked its reputation to the Soviet Union run by Vladimir Lenin and then Joseph Stalin, one of the most repressive regimes in modern history. But their party went into swift decline during the Cold War that began in the late 1940s and barely exists today.
But in their brief heyday in the 1930s and early 1940s, most rank-and file American communists were busy advocating badly needed changes at home. During the Great Depression, they mobilized jobless men and women to demand immediate aid from the government. They organized low-paid industrial workers into such unions as the Electrical Workers and Auto Workers. They battled discrimination by race and religion and national origin. And they advocated for a good education, health care, and access to cultural resources for every American.
Communists were also the most vigorous foes of fascism—except for twenty-two notorious months beginning in late August 1939, when the USSR signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. Knowing that the tyrants in the Kremlin approved all these activities does not negate their positive impact on American society. Ordinary members of the Communist Party helped make the US a more tolerant, more democratic society—and put pressure on liberals to dismantle barriers between people deemed worthy of government help and those who were not.
As part of mass movements, socialists have followed the same pattern throughout American history: they do all they can to compel elites to make reforms in the existing order. The paradox of their success is that it often limits the growth of socialism itself. Perceptive politicians understand that a rising opposition force that aims to replace the entire system has to be co-opted, not simply repressed.
I have adapted some parts of this essay from Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), and from Peter Dreier and Michael Kazin, “How Socialists Changed America,” in We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style, ed. Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreier, and Michael Kazin (New York: New Press, 2020), 15‒45. Thanks to Peter for giving me permission to do that. Donald Trump, 2019 State of the Union address, quoted in Jacob Pramuk, “Expect Trump to Make More ‘Socialism’ Jabs as He Faces Tough 2020 Re-election Fight,” CNBC, February 6, 2019, www.cnbc.com/2019/02/06/trump-warns-of-socialism-in-state-of-the-union-as-2020-election-starts.html.
Robert Owen, “First Discourse on a New System of Society,” in Socialism in America: From the Shakers to the Third International, A Documentary History, ed. Albert Fried (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1970), 94‒111.
On the presidents who heard Owen speak and/or spoke to him, see Elizabeth Johnson, “A Welcome Attack on American Values: How the Doctrines of Robert Owen Attracted American Society,” Constructing the Past 8, no. 1, article 9 (2007), https://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/constructing/vol8/iss1/9.
Tom Cole, “Socialism Is Un-American,” April 30, 2019, https://cole.house.gov/media-center/weekly-columns/socialism-un-american.
Quoted in Kazin, American Dreamers, 116.
Albert Einstein, “Why Socialism?,” Monthly Review, May 1949, https://monthlyreview.org/2009/05/01/why-socialism.
Adam Howard, “Don’t Let Politicians Use MLK’s Name in Vain,” Grio, January 17, 2022, https://thegrio.com/2022/01/17/dont-let-politicians-use-mlks-name-in-vain.
Irving Howe, Socialism and America (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), On the electoral fortunes of socialists in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, see Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States</em (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), 188. For a list of where Socialist Party members won local office in the United States, see James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912‒1925 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), 116‒118. Socialists also occupied 150 seats in state legislatures at some time from 1910 to 1920. See Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 118.</small?
For references to these quotations, see my article “The Agony and Romance of the American Left,” American Historical Review 100 (December 1995): 1488‒1512. The best summary and analysis of the question is Lipset and Marks, It Didn’t Happen Here. But also see Eric Foner, “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?,” in Foner, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), 110‒145.
Quoted in Kazin, “Agony and Romance.”
Adapted from Myth America: Historian Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies about Our Past, edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer. Copyright © 2023. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.